A counselor at Simi Valley’s Camp Alonim sits with some of her campers. Photo courtesy of Camp Alonim

So, you want to be a camp counselor


While some Jewish sleepaway camps start accepting staff applications as early as September for the following summer, most camps are still looking to fill at least a few spots as late as April.

So, if you’re a high school senior or older, it’s not too late to apply. Some camps also hire high school seniors-to-be.

More-established camps tend to hire their own camp graduates in high numbers, but most value new hires as well, for their fresh ideas.

The Journal contacted a handful of directors of Jewish residential camps throughout California to find out what they are looking for in camp counselors, whether bunk counselors who spend the day with a group of kids or specialists who run a specific activity. Here are five key characteristics.

You want to work with kids

Dan Baer, director of Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks, said a desire to work with kids is a must. After all, counselors are often with them all day, and many sleep in the kids’ cabin at night.

Beyond liking kids, counselor candidates with childcare experience have an advantage, and it doesn’t need to be anything formal. Maybe the candidate has baby-sat, Baer said, or taken care of nieces and nephews, worked as a day camp counselor or lifeguard. Perhaps they are involved in community theater and often work with the youngest actors.

That said, Baer and other camp directors recognize how demanding high school and college is. Taking advanced-placement classes and playing in the school jazz band or similar activities might not leave time for much else. So long as the passion for working with kids is there, that’s sufficient.

“Regardless of your specialization at a camp, your main role is to be a counselor and take care of kids,” said Mara Berde, associate director of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp outside San Francisco. “Counselors are serving as parents, older siblings, role models. They are supervising kids all day long.”

You are willing to learn

Young adults should not be discouraged if they lack expertise in a traditional camp activity such as archery or arts and crafts.

“For positions that depend on a certain skill set, applicants that have those skills have an advantage — for example, lifeguards or horse wranglers,” said Josh Levine, executive director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. But “for a number of positions, we can train our staff before they get to camp in the summer. If they don’t have an archery certification from a governing body, we can train them and get them certified.”

Being open to a position you hadn’t originally considered might land you a job.

You’re in it for the right

reasons

Although the idea of spending summer in the great outdoors with a bunch of other collegians might sound like terrific fun, being a camp counselor is demanding work, said Dalit Shlapobersky of Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa near Big Bear.

Ariella Moss Peterseil, associate director of Camp Ramah in California in Ojai, added, “I always say, Jewish summer camp and the Israeli army are the only two places where, as an 18-year-old, you are given the lives of people in your hands.”

Not only does camp staff need to take its responsibility seriously, members need to understand “what an amazing opportunity they have to impact, because they are 24/7 role models,” she added.

“It’s totally legit: You want to be with your friends. But be ready for the additional step. We always say it’s about creating new memories for these kids and not about reliving your memories.”

You have empathy

For their interviews, candidates should anticipate questions about various scenarios. For example, what if a camper seems withdrawn? Or maybe a kid in your cabin isn’t showering — what would you do?

“It’s less about, ‘Do they have the right or wrong answer?’ and more about their approach,” Berde said. “Are they coming to their answer from a caring place?

“A lot of kids are coming to camp for the very first time,” she added. So there might be a sixth- or seventh-grader who has never been away from home and other campers who are on their third or fourth year. Berde said she wants staff members who are “able to empathize with kids in that situation.”

You connect with kids — no matter your personality type  

Although many may hold to the image of a kooky camp counselor onstage in some ridiculous camp skit dressed in an equally ridiculous costume, all camp counselors need not be extroverts.

“We hire a wide variety of personalities to match the wide variety of our campers,” Baer said. “That includes shy and goofy and loud and quiet and all of it. It’s our job to make sure we have a balance.”

Camp directors recognize the strengths that more introverted candidates might bring to the position. Yes, they need to be able to hold a conversation. But, Berde said, sometimes the more reserved candidates are the most thoughtful and end up as “silent leaders.” Berde calls them “the glue.”

Often, she added, these are the staff members with whom campers connect on a deeper level.